Lives and Works under Oppression

(A Comparison Study of Kim So-wol and Peyo Yavorov’s Lives and Works)


Prof. Dr. Habil. Alexander Fedotoff

Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski


In my paper, I would like to make a comparative study of lives and works of two famous poets and creators of Korea and Bulgaria – Kim So-wol (김소월, 金素月, 1902-1943) and Peyo Yavorov (Пейо Яворов, 1878-1914). There are several reasons to make this study: first, these two poets are contemporaries; second, they lived relatively short lives; third, their poetry is very symbolic and decorative. Last but not least, living in their own countries, both of them experienced foreign oppression which influenced enormously their poetical works.

Let me start with Kim So-wol – the most famous and prominent Korean poet for his valuable contribution to early modern Korean literature and poetry in particular. Kim So-wol was born in 1902 in Kwansan, North Pyongan Province. Kim so-wol’s real name was Kim Chǒng-sik (김정식;金廷湜). 

It is necessary to mention that shortly after he was born his father became insane. In fact his father was attacked by Japanese workers who were building a railway near his home. He suffered from a grave mental illness and was treated by the local shamans who resorted to the old ways of “driving the demons out”. This fact although tragic must have affected the poet’s childhood. It is well-known that the desperation of the family about the demise of its would-be provider, and the constant worries about an uncertain future – all left a deep mark on Kim So-wol who was raised by his grandfather, a minor entrepreneur. It was his grandfather who taught him classical Chinese language and entered him in the famed Osan Middle School at the age of fifteen. Kim So-wol became a pupil of Kim Eok (김억;金憶), pen-named Anso, who remained for the rest of his life not only his tutor but one who truly understood the growth and abrupt termination of his poetic genius. After graduating from Paejae High School, Kim So-wol taught for a while in his home town and then he went to Japan to study at a college of commerce. The colonial government restricted the access of the Korean youngsters to a modern education within Korea, but did not mind when they went to study to Japan – on the assumption that the experience would make the students pro-Japanese. However, his studies lasted for merely a few months. In September 1923 a large earthquake hit the Tokyo area. It led to mass attacks on Koreans whom the Japanese mobs believed to be responsible for arson attacks. Several thousand Koreans were killed, and others, including a majority of the students, fled the unrests and returned to the safety of their home. 

It was around this time that Kim So-wol wrote the verses which heralded the birth of modern Korean poetry. He published them in literary journals which began to appear in large numbers after the March 1 Uprising of 1919. The Japanese relaxed their control over the country, and for a while the Korean press and literature were tolerated .

So, Kim So-wol published several poems in Kaebyok and other literary journals. Kim So-wol continued to publish his poems after his return in such journals as Yongdae till his sudden death. Kim So-wol died in 1934 of what appears to be suicide. 

In 1925 Kim So-wol wrote a collection of poems “The Azaleas” which were written in a style reminiscent of traditional Korean folk-songs.

One of his most famous poems in this book is “Azaleas” (진달래 꽃):

When you leave,

weary of me,

without a word I shall gently let you go.


From Mt. Yak

in Yongbyon

I shall gather armfuls of azaleas

and scatter them on your way.


Step by step

on the flowers placed before you

tread lightly, softly as you go. 


When you leave

weary of me,

though I die, I'll not let one tear fall. 

(Translated by David R. McCann)

Its melancholy themes of departure and loss reminds one of the folk song “Arirang”. Because Kim So-wol used the music and tone of folk songs he became known as a “Folk Song Poet”.

It happened that “The Azaleas” was his first and only collection of poetry published in his lifetime. His teacher Anso published a volume of selected poems of Kim So-wol in 1935. 

That book included his memoir and a critical essay, in which he points out that the poet’s true genius lay in composing lines in the rhythm of Korean folk song, thereby making his poems come directly to the hearts of Koreans. The magical charm of Kim So-wol’s lines cannot be fully recaptured in translation, simply because the true spirit of his poetry can only be revealed through the sound of Korean folk tunes .

Many international literature critics note that Kim So-wol is among the most talented and gifted poets of Korea. On the other hand, they point out that Kim So-wol’s poetry is a real challenge for foreign translators because of its very symbolic and metaphoric nature. For example, Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) states that “Kim So-Wol (1902-1935) is one of modern Korea’s finest lyric poets, undoubtedly. Among his works is one that virtually every Korean feels unthinkingly patriotic about. […] It is Korea’s most often (mis)translated poem” .

David McCann while introducing his translations of Kim So-wol’s poems in his book “The Silence of Love” says that “Kim So-wol is the most widely known and popular of twentieth-century Korean poets. The melancholy tone of his poems, most of which were published before he was twenty-five, and his use of traditional, “folk-style” thematic and metrical elements combine to express poignantly a view of life that is felt to be particularly Korean” .

Russian Koreanist Andrei Lankov underlines that Kim So-wol will be always remembered as Korea’s first modern poet, the master of subtle and delicate verses. His tragic life was typical for many of his peers, the founders of modern Korean literature who lived in the 1920s and 1930s. .

Concluding it is possible to stress that Kim So-wol’s personal life did not give much ground for happiness. Korean poets had to earn a living through other means because poetry seldom pays well. For a while Kim So-wol tried to support himself through a sequence of jobs and unsuccessful business ventures. He worked in his grandfather’s mines as a manager, but soon the business collapsed. Then Kim So-wol tried to run a local branch of Donga Ilbo, the major national newspaper, but this also ended in bankruptcy. Oversensitive, impractical and naïve, Kim So-wol could not adjust himself to the world of money-making.

Moreover, like all Korean males of the era, in his teens he was married to a local girl selected by his family. Nobody cared that he was in love with another girls: such things did not matter in traditional societies where marriage is seen as a calculated and pre-arranged alliance of two families, and nothing else .

A Kim So-wol’s Bulgarian contemporary – Peyo Yavorov (1878-1914) is also treated as a Symbolist poet. He is considered to be one of the finest poetic talents in the fin de siècle Kingdom of Bulgaria. Peyo Yavorov was a prominent member of the Misal group. Peyo Yavorov became a real heir of the Bulgarian National Revival in the Bulgarian literature which began in the 18th century with the historiographical writings of Paisius of Hilendar (The History of Slav-Bulgarians). In the period 1840-1875 the literature came alive with writings on mainly revolutionary, anti-Turkish themes. To mention several names: the noted poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev worked in the late 19th century and is nowadays regarded as arguably the foremost Bulgarian poet of the period. Among the writers who engaged in revolutionary activity was also Lyuben Koravelov. 

After Bulgaria achieved independence (1878) the national literature lost much of its revolutionary spirit, and writings of a pastoral and regional type became more common. Ivan Vazov was the first professional Bulgarian man of letters, whose 1893 novel “Under the Yoke”, which depicts the Ottoman oppression of Bulgaria, is the most famous piece of classic Bulgarian literature. The poet Pencho Slaveikov brought other European literatures to the notice of Bulgarian readers. His epic “Song of Blood” (1911-1913) dealt with the struggle against the Turks .

So, Peyo Yavorov belonged to this generation of great Bulgarian men of letters. His life and work are closely connected with the liberation movement Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization in Macedonia. He was also a supporter of the Armenian Independence Movement, and wrote a number of poems about Armenians.

Most of his poems are romantic in subject, and dedicated to the two women in his life – Mina Todorova and Lora Karavelova. His first, and arguably greatest love Mina died from tubercolosis, which greatly saddened Yavorov. She was buried in the cemetery of Boulogne Billancourt.

Later on he met Lora, the daughter of statesman Petko Karavelov. They were married, and the letters correspondence between them was considered evidence of their ardent and vivid love, and thus different from the relationship Yavorov had with Mina Todorova.

In 1913, Lora shot herself and Yavorov tried to commit suicide. The bullet went through his temporal bone, which left him blind. In despair over the trial provoked by Lora’s death and the rumor that he had killed her, Yavorov poisoned and then shot himself in autumn 1914, at the age of 36.

Nowadays, Peyo Yavorov is still treated as one of the greatest Bulgarian poets. There is a peak on Livingston Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica, which is named after Peyo Yavorov. In addition, a number of primary, middle and high schools across Bulgaria also bear his name.

Instead of a conclusion, I would to read two poems of Peyo Yavorov which resemble the famous “Azaleas” of Kim So-wol in a very unique way:

Two lovely eyes

Two lovely eyes. The spirit of a child.

Two lovely eyes. Sunrays and music.

They don't want anything and they don't vow.

My soul is praying,


My soul is praying…


The passions and the woes

Will cast tomorrow over them 

The veil of sin and shame.

The veil of sin and shame

Won't cast tomorrow over them

The passions and the woes


My soul is praying,


My soul is praying…

They don't want anything and they don't vow…

Two lovely eyes - sunrays and music.

Two lovely eyes. The spirit of a child. 


To Laura

My soul is grief. My soul is call

Because I am a bird picked off.

To death is doomed my wounded soul – 

Soul wounded by the love.

My soul is grief. My soul is call.

Tell me what are meeting and send-off.

I tell you - there are hell and woe

and in the woe there's also love.


Mirages are close, distant - the streets.

Surprised she's smiling with the joy

of ignorance and youngster's greed,

of sultry flesh and airy ghost.

Mirages are close, distant - the streets

when she is standing in aureoles.

She never hears who calls and grieves –

she - flesh and airy ghost …